Durham Unveiled:
Designing and Redesigning
Housing, Health, and Wellness

Durham, What does it take to create a Community of Wellness? As a city, where have we been and where are we going? Most importantly, how do we care for our most vulnerable populations and stay connected to each other? These were some of the topics up for grabs during a recent panel discussion at the beautiful Hayti Heritage Center on Fayetteville Street. Three panelists chimed in, as Leonida Inge of NPR facilitated the conversation.

Durham Unveiled:

Designing and Redesigning Housing, Health, and Wellness

by: Leslie Rachael Nydick

Aidil Ortiz-Hill, a community organizer who works for the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust as Health Care Division program officer for central North Carolina, lives in East Durham. Ortiz-Hill spoke about the social determinants of health. She challenged us to look at “health” through  non-traditional lenses. What if we all took more active roles in creating communities of holistic wellness, where affordable housing existed next to hospitals? Neighbors chipped in regularly to help each other with acute care? Tiny wellness villages revolved around clinics, where safety, fitness, affordable housing, and a healthy diet held the communities together? There is no utopia, but there are possibilities for redesigning communities around an integrated vision of wellness.

Although Aidil is a visionary, she didn’t hesitate to bring the harsh reality of struggles within our city into the open. She noted that health is impacted by current conditions in neighborhoods, and this toxic environment has to be challenged and changed. The idea that a heavily militarized police force is needed to protect a neighborhood from itself does not create wellness. Nor do lead in water, lack of safe public transportation and affordable housing, and low-paying jobs. Forcing people to constantly juggle whether to pay for rent or utilities or health care or food is not healthy, either. Until we address these issues, we will not be well, said Aidil.

Aidil also unveiled the history of redlining in Durham and throughout the US. In the not so distant past, banks literally drew maps with red lines around neighborhoods based on the percentage of black folk in the neighborhood. Banks wouldn’t loan money for mortgages to those in the redlined neighborhoods, forcing clusters of neighborhoods to exist based on race. The only way to promote health and protect the vulnerable, says Aidil, is to treat neighborhoods equally. Redlining, or its equivalents, must be eliminated in order to keep our communities healthy. As a recent video, entitled “Unnatural Causes”, reveals, the greatest determinant for health is the zip code where you are born, according to Aidil.

WUNC’s Leonida Inge added that communities have to be more cognizant of the needs of our elders. We cannot be whole without providing healthy opportunities for the population to age-in-place. She cited a study which concluded that, in recent years, the growth of the elderly population in the U.S.A. has been greatest in the Carolinas. Elderly single women are especially vulnerable, in terms of economic status, housing, transportation, and healthcare needs. She posed the question, “How can we expand the conversation about wellness to include the elderly, to explore how we are all connected?”

Dr. Robert Korstad, the Director of the Initiative on Poverty and Social Justice at Duke University, provided a detailed history of redlining in Durham, summarizing the project that he and his students are currently researching. From the 1920s through the 1960s, the deeds of homes in many neighborhoods in Durham prohibited the selling of these homes to African-Americans. Hope Valley, Watts-Hillandale, Forest Hills, and most neighborhoods throughout Durham had these racial covenants up through the 1960s, despite the US Supreme Court’s rulings that racial covenants in housing were unconstitutional. In addition to redlining, up through the 1960s, Duke University sold lots to faculty and staff at cost. On the national level, the GI bill provided low interest mortgages to veterans IF they were white. This policy enabled white flight out of the city center. Korstad emphasized that the whole landscape of housing in Durham today has been shaped by these policies. What may appear to be choice is truly a design to create white privileges.

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Ben Filippo of Preservation Durham addressed the topic of Historic Preservation and Racial Equity. He explained that plaques and designation of historic sites in Durham don’t help create equity. He noted that Preservation Durham is focusing on keeping people in their neighborhoods and maintaining diversity within the city center. How can this be done? He suggested that Durham look at Cleveland for a model. Over the last fifteen years, Cleveland has turned vacant or deteriorating historic homes and factories into livable, downtown spaces. The key, Filippo said, was that non-profits in Cleveland provided technical assistance for those who wanted to either renovate historic homes or buy them. This came in the form of skills training and assistance for community members. The combination of low-interest loans and minority homeowners learning how to maintain historic properties enabled ownership.

Preservation Durham is trying to implement this model in Durham, partnering with Triangle Community Foundation, Self Help Credit Union, and others. The ultimate goal is not to protect buildings; it’s to protect people. Which circles back to our challenge: What does it take to redesign the landscape of Durham? How do we move away from our history of inequity and create a community of wellness, where we are ALL protected and connected, especially the most vulnerable populations?

It will be up to each of us to answer this question, to do our part in re-visioning and redesigning our beloved community.


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